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Small Business Fact Sheet: Harassment in the Workplace

  1. When does harassing conduct in the workplace violate the law?

    For harassment to violate the law, it must be based on a legally protected characteristic, among other requirements. The protected characteristics covered by the federal laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are: race, color, religion, national origin, sex (including sexual orientation; gender identity; and pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions), disability, age (40 or older), and genetic information (including family medical history). Therefore, while some employees may experience unwelcome teasing, mistreatment, or rude behavior in the workplace, such conduct cannot violate the federal EEO laws unless it occurs because of a protected characteristic.

  2. Does all harassing conduct that is linked to a protected characteristic violate the EEO laws?

    No. To violate the EEO laws, the harassing conduct also must:

    • involve a change to employment (for example, the employee is fired, demoted, denied a promotion or transfer, reassigned, or receives reduced hours or pay because the employee rejected a supervisor’s sexual advances); or
    • create a “hostile work environment.”
  3. What is a “hostile work environment”?

    A “hostile work environment” is created when harassing conduct that is based on a legally protected characteristic is so severe or frequent (courts use the word “pervasive”) that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would find the situation to be abusive.

  4. What are some examples of harassing conduct that is based on legally protected characteristics?
    • saying or writing an ethnic, racial, or sex-based slur;
    • forwarding an offensive or derogatory “joke” email;
    • displaying offensive material (such as a noose, swastika or other hate symbols, or offensive cartoons, photographs, or graffiti);
    • threatening or intimidating a person because of the person’s religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs;
    • sharing pornography or sexually demeaning depictions of people, including AI-generated and deepfake images and videos;
    • making comments based on stereotypes about older workers;
    • mimicking or mocking a person’s disability;
    • mocking a person’s accent;
    • making fun of a person’s religious garments or displays;
    • asking intrusive questions about a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender transition, or intimate body parts;
    • groping, touching, or otherwise physically assaulting a person;
    • making sexualized gestures or comments, even when this behavior is not motivated by a desire to have sex; and
    • threatening a person’s job or offering preferential treatment in exchange for sexual favors.
  5. Can only women be targets of sexual harassment?

    No, anyone can be the target of sexual harassment. To violate the law, sexual harassment does not need to be based on sexual desire, and can result from behavior that is intended to embarrass, intimidate, or belittle a person because of their sex.

  6. Do employers need to protect employees only from harassing conduct by owners, managers, and supervisors?

    No. Workplace harassment because of a protected basis by any person, including coworkers, customers, and clients, can violate the federal EEO laws.

    Different liability standards apply depending on the harasser’s status or job in the employer’s organization. A discussion of the different liability standards (and defenses to liability) is beyond the scope of this document. For additional information, see section IV of the Enforcement Guidance on Harassment in the Workplace.

  7. What are an employer’s obligations with regard to harassment in the workplace?

    Employers are responsible for preventing workplace harassment. Employers also are responsible for quickly ending harassing behavior once they learn about it, even if the harassment has not yet been severe enough or frequent enough to create a hostile work environment.

  8. What are some steps employers can take to prevent harassment?

    Employers are strongly encouraged to:

    • have a clear, easy-to-understand anti-harassment policy that is understood by its workforce;
    • have safe and effective procedures that employees can use to report potential harassment, including more than one option for reporting;
    • provide training to all employees, including supervisors and managers, about the company’s anti-harassment policy and complaint process; and
    • take steps to ensure the anti-harassment policy is followed consistently and the complaint process is working.

    Employers should consider whether employees in their workforce experience barriers to comprehension, including limited ability to speak English, to read, or to understand the material, when the employers are creating, revising, or assessing the effectiveness of an anti-harassment policy, reporting procedures, or training. 

  9. What should an employer do in response to a harassment complaint? 

    There is no one-size-fits-all approach to responding to a harassment complaint. However, an effective response often involves two steps: (1) conducting an investigation; and (2) if needed, taking appropriate corrective action.

    When responding to a report of potential harassment, employers should be mindful that federal EEO laws prohibit retaliation against the employee who made the report. For additional information about retaliation, please visit

  10.  What should an employer consider when investigating a harassment complaint? 

    An employer should consider how to conduct a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation to decide whether harassing conduct occurred and take appropriate action to promote a safe, fair, and productive work environment. What steps to take, what evidence to gather, and whom to interview will depend on the particular facts and circumstances of the allegations.

  11. If an employer investigates a harassment complaint and determines that harassment did occur, is the employer required by law to fire the harasser?

    No. If an employer determines that some type of consequence is appropriate, the employer will decide what corrective action should be taken under the circumstances. In deciding what is appropriate, it can be helpful to keep in mind that the goals are to stop the harassment now and prevent future harassment. There is a wide range of potential appropriate corrective actions. Examples include informal counseling, a written warning, mandatory harassment training, suspension without pay, reassignment, demotion to a non-supervisory position, and ultimately termination.

  12. How can small businesses obtain additional information about harassment from the EEOC?

    The EEOC has a number of resources for small businesses. When contacting EEOC, please ask for language interpretation assistance, if needed. EEOC’s small business resources include:

    For more information on harassment, please visit:

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